RALEIGH — Wake County school leaders will have to defend their student assignment and discipline policies to federal civil rights investigators responding to complaints filed by the NAACP.
The Office of Civil Rights investigates a third of the 6,900 complaints it receives each year, according to Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman of the U.S. Department of Education. Wake was notified about the investigation in a letter dated Nov. 5. Bradshaw said they typically try to complete investigations within six months.
If the school system is declared in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Wake could lose about $80 million a year in federal funding.
Word of the Wake review comes near the end of a tumultuous year for the elected leaders of the 143,000-student system. Having discarded socioeconomic diversity as a factor in school assignment, as newly elected board members promised voters last fall, the school board now faces not only the federal investigation, but also a review by a national accrediting body.
The state and national NAACP alleged in complaints filed in September that the board engaged in racial bias by eliminating diversity in the assignment policy, through student reassignments made this year and in the way minority students are disproportionately suspended.
"You can't run roughshod over the minority because you think you have a political mandate," the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, said Wednesday. "No election gives you a mandate to break the law."
But members of the school board who backed the changes in student assignments said they feel confident that the investigation will come out in Wake's favor.
"The charges they made, from our viewpoint, seemed to be invalid and without merit," said school board Chairman Ron Margiotta.
Barber said the NAACP will continue to pursue other options to bring a legal challenge to assignment changes in Wake County. He said leaders of the NAACP and lawyers will hold a public meeting Nov. 30 to discuss more action. The NAACP also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. A Justice spokeswoman said Wednesday that the department is still considering whether to investigate.
The state NAACP is also responsible for a special review being conducted by Advancing Excellence in Education Worldwide, or AdvancED, the Georgia-based group that accredits Wake's 24 high schools.AdvancED is reviewing nearly every major decision made by the school board over the past year, including the elimination of the diversity policy.
School board member John Tedesco, chairman of the committee that worked for months on a student reassignment plan, said Wake is on firm ground. Any actions taken by the board are vetted by school board attorney Ann Majestic of the Raleigh firm Tharrington Smith, Tedesco noted.
"I have much more confidence in Ann Majestic and Tharrington Smith than I do in the random complaint of some naysayers," Tedesco said.
The plan being drawn up by Tedesco, which was shelved last month when board member Debra Goldman defected from the GOP majority, would have divided the county into 16 assignment zones. Critics of the plan complained it would result in the creation of schools, especially in Southeast Raleigh, that have many minority and low-income students.
Al McSurely, one of the NAACP lawyers involved in the preparation of the complaint, said the organization had its eye on actions of the new board early on. With four new members joining Ron Margiotta to form a majority, the board cut diversity as a factor used to assign students and reassigned some students from Garner High back to their Southeast Raleigh neighborhoods. Tedesco said the move was made to relieve crowding at Garner High.
"Everybody who has any sense at all knew what they were doing at least had a racial aspect," McSurely said. "We wanted to wait until Tedesco had made some moves. Some of the lawyers felt that it was premature to do it when it was just talk. We waited until they moved some kids back from Garner." The NAACP's statewide membership had been urging leaders to move against Wake, McSurely said.
"Almost immediately, our own membership, the NAACP membership of 20,000 people, wanted us to get involved," he said. "There's many school systems across the state that are in worse shape that are looking to Raleigh as a model and they said, 'You'd better stop them in Raleigh.'"
Majestic wasn't surprised that the complaints were being investigated. But she said she wasn't worried.
"I don't think the board changing the student assignment policy was racially biased," Majestic said. "But we'll cooperate with the process and defend the board."
Two board members who didn't back the changes said they first learned of the federal response Wednesday through news accounts.
"I don't want to downplay it, and I think it is significant that they are coming in," said board member Kevin Hill. "I've never been involved with anything like this, so I don't even want to guess what could happen.
"We as a school system need to strive for improvement. Their input will be helpful."
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